Novelist, Playwright and prolific essay writer the late Gore Vidal, (1925 - 2012)1 could always be counted on for a provocative opinion or two or three. He was also sure to slay the sacred cows of received opinion with his incisive wit. Even if you disagree with him his opinions on literary matters, politics, history, social issues etc., were usually well grounded and if not that at least interesting.
It is however sad to say that late in life Gore Vidal developed a severe case of conspiracy theory thinking. This served to bring his whole oeuvre into disrepute by enabling his critics to label him a crack pot.
This is to put it mildly hardly fair, after all it is perfectly possible for person to have some crack pot opinions in one area and be perfectly sensible and sane in others so that dismissing all of Vidal’s work because of one area of crack pottery is hardly fair. After all Isaac Newton who discovered the laws of gravity and laid the foundations of modern physics was also a believer in truly nutty Biblical numerology and also alchemy and he wrote many thousands of pages on this nonsense.2
So along with Gore Vidal’s incisive and clever essays on American Politics and history there was late in Gore Vidal’s career a descent into silly conspiracy thinking. Vidal’s jaundice view of American history and politics prevented him from following the usual patriotic shibboleths and his writings on these topics have frequently a refreshing clarity that pushes away the crap to reveal truth.3
Thus Vidal was perfectly willing to see America has an imperial power not be taken in by supposed “good intentions”, believe in an American ruling class that was perfectly capable of screwing people over and he saw that politicians could be motivated by crass self-interest and realpolitik.
However Gore Vidal saw in America something that had gone wrong and he traced it back to Lincoln. The growth of an “Imperial” Federal government.4
Towards the end of his life Gore Vidal openly embraced the following conspiracy theories has reasonable.
1. That F.D.R. maneuvered Japan to attack the USA and knew when and where the attack would take place.
2. That J.F.K. was killed by the Mafia in a conspiracy.
3. That the Federal government was involved in the Oklahoma City bombing of 1994.
4. That there was a government conspiracy involving 9/11.5
Each one of those so-called conspiracies is dubious to the nth degree.
Number one is a familiar fantasy that goes back to American isolationists of the interwar period. It is also very dubious. The idea is that F.D.R., deliberately provoked Japan into war so that F.D.R. would have his war with Hitler. The problem with this is obvious. If F.D.R. wanted war with Germany why would he provoke Japan? Oh and Hitler was the one who declared war on the USA.
But then Vidal is in many respects an old style isolationist who deeply regrets America becoming an international power. In fact he traces the rot back to Lincoln who he considers the first imperial President and the creator of a wicked Federal government.6
One thing about Vidal’s writings about history is that they are blatantly American centric. Vidal has little feel or it appears knowledge about other countries history. Thus in a letter to The New York Review of Books Vidal said:
Question to those in denial about the US as provocateur: Why is it, if we were not on the offensive, that so small and faraway an island as Japan attacked what was so clearly, already, a vast imperial continental power? You have now had over sixty years to come up with a plausible answer. Do tell. 7
Vidal’s sarcasm is often amusing here however it just covers up colossal ignorance. Vidal simply knows little about the history of Japan and the history of Japanese imperialism in the Far East. Ian Buruma had little trouble blowing Vidal’s air headed ignorant notions out of the water. Buruma stated:
In September, General Tojo took over as prime minister. Prince Takamatsu, the Emperor’s younger brother, wrote in his diary: “We have finally committed to war and now we must do all we can to launch it powerfully.” The hope was that a knockout blow would, in Admiral Yamamoto’s words, leave the Americans “so dispirited they will not be able to recover.” This kind of thinking was encouraged by the common idea that Americans were a decadent people. The man who planned the attack on Singapore, Colonel Tsuji Masanobu, later explained that “our candid ideas at the time were that the Americans, being merchants, would not continue for long with an unprofitable war.”8
One can still go on believing, of course, that Franklin D. Roosevelt was happy to sacrifice much of his navy in the hope that Hitler would join Japan in going to war with the US, something Hitler was under no obligation to do. But to believe that, you either have to be a right-wing Japanese with a political agenda (to revise the “peace constitution,” promote nationalism, and revive the military spirit), or permanently dazzled, if not blinded, by conspiracy theories in Washington, D.C. 9
In a later piece Vidal even tried to excuse Hitler declaring war on the United States by stating that Hitler in his December 11 speech justifying his declaration of war on the USA referred to a plan leaked out to the Chicago Tribune of an American plan to send a 5 million man expeditionary force to Europe by 1943.10 The plan was of course a mere contingency plan and since when do states declare war based on leaked newspaper reports of contingency plans leaked a few days before the war declaration?
Of course Vidal ignores the great bulk of Hitler’s speech because once again Vidal is being American centric and ignores that other countries have their own aims. Vidal utterly ignores that in Hitler’s December 11 speech Hitler spent vastly more time justifying his declaration of war by mouthing a series of anti-Semitic ravings about the “eternal Jew”.11 Further Hitler had been wanting Japan to enter the war for almost a year before the Pearl Harbor attack. In fact many months before the Pearl Harbor attack Hitler promised to declare war on the USA if Japan attacked America. Hitler in many respects did not take the USA seriously has an adversary.12 I note that Vidal’s notion still doesn’t explain why if F.D.R. wanted war with Germany he would provoke Japan to war. And assuming that is true just why would F.D.R. want his Navy in the pacific crippled? It didn’t make sense 70 years ago and still doesn’t make sense.13
As for JFK’s assassination being a mob hit?14 Vidal says:
Yet the gunning down in public view with the wife to one side and all the panoply of state fore and aft is purest Palermo sendoff.15
Vidal should have been aware that the USA is not Italy and that Dallas is not Palarmo. The fact is it is not even remotely routine in the USA for Mafia personal to gun down politicians. This also ignores the question about just why would they do it? Despite the supposed plans of Robert Kennedy to crack down on organized crime, which would mean going after Robert not John I would think, just why would the Mafia take such a risk. It would have been a monumentally stupid thing to do. If the Mafia had been caught out doing this it would have been crushed. Of course the Mafia has also been leaking information like a sieve for more than a generation just how the hell do they manage to keep this one a secret?
And aside from the stunningly stupidity of such a thing, the fact that aside from fanciful speculation no evidence has emerged should indicate that the notion is fanciful nonsense.16
The Oklahoma City bombing is another kettle of fish. In Timothy McVeigh Vidal met another person who harbored his deep distrust of the Federal government. So Vidal took seriously the idea that agents of the Federal government planted bombs in the building and McVeigh was a patsy, like Oswald supposedly was.17 Vidal in the article states:
Finally the Fact that the McVeigh-Nichols scenario makes no sense at all suggests that yet again, we are confronted with a “perfect crime-thus far”. 18
The above perfectly encapsulates the conspiracy mindset. Actually McVeigh et al’s scenario makes sense and did so to two different juries. Vidal’s incredulity is beside the point. Further the “prefect crime” bit is an admission that Vidal had no evidence of any kind just wild speculation about the hidden hand that he “knows” regardless of the evidence was behind it all. The evidence simply supports that McVeigh et al did it and that is that.19
Regarding 9/11 Vidal believes that there was likely a government plot to at least let it happen if not worst.20
Vidal says regarding Bush Jr’s behavior:
Complicity. The behavior of President George W. Bush on 11 September certainly gives rise to all sorts of not unnatural suspicions. I can think of no other modern chief of state who would continue to pose for 'warm' pictures of himself listening to a young girl telling stories about her pet goat while hijacked planes were into three buildings.21
It is all a fanciful exercise in question begging and wild speculation on the part of Vidal. Detailed studies of what happened on 9/11 reveal that contrary to what Mr. Vidal believes incompetence had a lot to do with it, despite his inability to believe in it. Another argument from incredulity. Certainly the arguments of so called “truthers” have little merit and are not worth taking seriously at all.22
As Noam Chomsky, no friend, of the US foreign or domestic policy past or present as said:
The world is full of unexplained data. Intelligence agencies and military forces are deluged with low-quality information which may, in retrospect, seem significant, but cannot seriously be evaluated … It would also be quite mad, in my opinion, for any government to try something like what [Vidal} suggested.23
It is sad to see a noted and provocative writer go down the rabbit hole and it sad that someone of Gore Vidal’s insight and intelligence did so.
1. Gore Vidal, Wikipedia Here.
2. Isaac Newton’s Occult Studies, Wikipedia Here.
3. See Vidal, Gore, United States: Essays 1952-1992, Broadway Books, New York, 1993, The Last Empire: Essays 1992-2000, Vintage Books, New York, 2001.
4. Vidal, 1993, pp. 669-701.
5. Vidal, Gore, The Last Empire, 2001, pp. 457-465, 235, The Meaning of Timothy McVeigh, (Originally Published in Vanity Fair, September 2001.), Here, The Enemy Within, (Originally Published in The Observer, October 27, 2002.), Here.
6. Footnote 4.
7. Vidal, Gore, Letter, The New York Review of Books, May, 17, 2001, Here
8. IBID, The New York Review of Books, Buruma, Ian, Letter.
10. Vidal, The Last Empire, 2001, p. 462-463.
11. Aaronovitch, David, Voodoo Histories, Riverhead Books, New York, 2010, p. 110.
12. Weinberg, Gerhard L., Germany Hitler & World War II, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1996, pp. 194-204.
13. See Prange, Gordon W., At Dawn We Slept, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1981, for an effective demolition of conspiracy nonsense regarding Pearl Harbor.
14. Vidal, The Last Empire, 2001, p.235.
16. For an effective demolition of claims the mob did it see Bugliosi, Vincent, Reclaiming History, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2007, pp. 1071-1188.
17. Vidal, Gore, The Meaning of Timothy McVeigh, 2001.
19. For a good overview of the case and why a hidden hand government conspiracy is just specious speculation see Oklahoma City Bombing, Wikipedia Here.
20. Vidal, Gore, 2002, Katwala, Sunder, Gore Vidal claims 'Bush junta' complicit in 9/11, The Guardian, October 27, 2002 Here,
21. Vidal, 2002.
22. For an effective demolition of “truther” crap regarding 9/11 see Dunbar, David & Reagan, Brad, Editors, Debunking 9/11 Myths, Second Edition, Hearst Books, New York, 2011. This is an investigation done by Popular Mechanics magazine.
23.Chomsky, Noam quoted in Aaronovitch, p. 281.